Saturday, 8 p.m., Minneapolis
As tough as it has been to say nice things about a Minnesota defense ranked last in the country, it's been just as easy to take notice of just how well the Golden Gophers' offense has performed.
Though the Golden Gophers have played only Bowling Green, Miami (Ohio), Florida Atlantic and Purdue, they have put up impressive offensive numbers. With 487.5 yards per game, Minnesota is second in the conference and 15th in the nation in total offense. The rushing offense and passing offense are also ranked second in the league as well.
Contrast that against an Ohio State defense that is ranked second in the nation and the battle between the Minnesota offense and the OSU stop troops becomes one that looks rather intriguing.
"Minnesota has a great offense," OSU linebacker Marcus Freeman said. "They're second in the Big Ten in all categories. … I think it will be a great challenge for our defense to see how good we really are."
OSU head coach Jim Tressel started his chat about Minnesota during his Tuesday press luncheon by praising the ring leader of the group, redshirt freshman quarterback Adam Weber, and it's no wonder. He's quickly asserted himself as a playmaker, throwing for more than 250 yards per game and twice piling up four scores, while he's also ran for almost 65 yards per game on the ground.
"The biggest thing about them is their quarterback," Freeman said.
In addition, the Golden Gophers appear to have taken some of the best aspects of former head coach Glen Mason's run-heavy offense and are incorporating them into new head man Tim Brewster's Spread Coast scheme, a combination of the spread and West Coast offenses. Mason did not leave the cabinet empty on the offensive side of the ball, and that's been proven to the tune of 35.5 points per game.
Running With A Purpose: One of the secrets of the spread is how it can improve a team's running game as much as it does a team's passing game. That has happened at Minnesota, where the attack has changed a bit from last season but the excellent rushing totals piled up under Mason are at least being rivaled during Brewster's first season.
So far, the major benefactor has been Amir Pinnix. The senior, who was Minnesota's starting rusher a year ago, got off to a hot start with back to back 100-yard rushing games against BG and Miami. Through four games, he's rushed for 439 yards and three touchdowns on 77 carries.
But he's not the only man who can excel with the ball in his hands. As noted earlier, Weber provides a rushing threat, and Pinnix's backup, Duane Bennett, had a breakout game a week ago against Purdue. Bennett, a freshman, ran for 81 yards and a touchdown on seven carries against the Boilermakers.
Top-Heavy Talent Out Wide: Minnesota boasts two wideouts with more than 10 catches through two games. One should immediately stand out to the Columbus faithful, while another might be a tad bit more anonymous, but not because of his stats.
The one Ohioans might know fairly well is Ernie Wheelwright, a graduate of Columbus Walnut Ridge. The 6-5 senior has been a highlight player for the Golden Gophers for years now, and through four games this season, he's racked up 16 catches for 205 yards and five scores. In his career, he's caught 22 touchdowns and never has had below five scores in a season.
"He's a huge challenge," OSU safeties coach Paul Haynes said. "He's a big guy. He has better speed than you'd think he does, and he's a competitor."
But a guy who might deserve more pub than Wheelwright is Eric Decker. A sophomore from Cold Spring, Minn., Decker has an impressive 30 catches for 421 yards and four touchdowns, numbers that put him in the top 16 nationally in both catches and yards per game.
"I think that Eric Decker is really an outstanding player," Brewster said. "He reminds me of Ed McCaffery, a big receiver we had in Denver. His toughness, size, speed, his willingness to go in the middle of the field, to make the hard, tough catches... he also has a savvy about him."
Why So Bad?: That has been the million dollar question around the Woody Hayes Athletic Center as reporters have tried to find out from the Buckeye players and coaches why Minnesota's defense has provided as much opposition as butter would to a hot knife.
So far, the answers have varied from the occasional big play given up to some poor field positioning the stop troops have had to deal with.
"I think defensively, in the early going, they got hit with some – in some blitz situations and some people threw some balls in there against man and all of a sudden there was nobody there in pursuit, gave up a lot more big plays in the beginning in the first couple games," Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel said. "This past weekend, they gave up a return and an interception return. They gave away 14 points of returns. So sometimes the defense takes an unfair hit on those kinds of things."
But there's no debating the last-place ranking the team has in total defense and pass defense in the nation. Even more damning is a look at the opposing drive charts. Seventeen times, opposing teams have put together drives lasting 60 yards or longer. Combine that with the 16 turnovers the team has lost in four games and it's easy to see why Minnesota struggles so much when it comes to keeping teams off the scoreboard.
A Tale Of Two Halves: Minnesota's media release brags about the team's conditioning, given that the Golden Gophers have outscored teams 60-33 during the fourth quarter of their games this season. The problem has been just how far behind Minnesota has found itself going into those fourth quarters.
In the team's three losses, which came to Bowling Green, Florida Atlantic and Purdue, Minnesota went to the half down 21 points in each of those games.